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With All We Know About Concussions, Why Do We Still Love Football?

We know repeatedly getting hit in the head is dangerous, so why do we keep doing it in the name of football?

by Nicholas Deleon
Jun 17 2016, 2:00pm

Image: Johann Schwarz/Flickr

Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us. New columns appear every Friday.

Ah, football—the sport of kings! For 16 weeks beginning every fall, millions of Americans plop down in front of their televisions and whittle away their Sundays watching scores of glistening National Football League demigods kick, throw, and intercept oblong balls across the gridiron for the eventual right to be called Super Bowl champion. For a season, at least. Along the way, thousands of yards are rushed, hundreds of touchdowns are scored, and, as if the sport wasn't dramatic enough for you, the occasional ball might be intentionally deflated to sabotage the opposition.

Fun!

With so much excitement to go around, is there any wonder why football, at least according to a 2015 Bloomberg poll, is now the most popular sport in the US?

And while I like the sport as much as the next red blooded American (though I'm more of a college league guy, personally), something that's begun to dampen my enthusiasm for it in recent years is the amount of research that's come out showing just how dangerous it may be for the brain. It's no secret; mainstream America is well aware of these dangers. A Will Smith movie about some of this research released last year, and the NFL's initial response to it, demonstrate how well this knowledge has pierced the public consciousness. Very quickly my thoughts have gone from "Woo, football!" to "How can I in good conscience watch a sport where, as part of the regular run of play, these athletes repeatedly clash heads with enough force to make viewers at home cringe?" A couple of bumps, bruises, and broken bones are one thing, but concussion and degenerative diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (better known as CTE) are an altogether more serious concern.

Put another way: Knowing what we now know about brain injuries, why is football still a thing?

Given that I'm also a fan of mixed martial arts and boxing—two sports where repeated blows to the head are quite literally a winning strategy—you can understand my unease surrounding contact sports these days.

"The evidence is only piling up that repetitive brain trauma is a very serious issue," Chris Nowinski, co-founder and president of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which studies the brains of former athletes looking for signs of CTE, told Motherboard in a phone interview. Research like Nowinski's shows that repeated blows to the head can cause a buildup of a protein called tau, which kills brain cells. This tau buildup, known as CTE (which can only be diagnosed by examining the brains of people who've died), can lead to memory loss, aggressive behavior, depression, and dementia. "The outcomes of CTE and post-concussion syndrome can destroy your quality of life."

Nowinski should know. A former professional wrestler with Vince McMahon's WWE, he founded the Concussion Legacy Foundation (originally known as the Sports Legacy Institute) in 2007 after seeking to treat symptoms related to a severe concussion he suffered while inside the squared circle.

"At first it was, 'How can I prevent people from going through what I went through?'" he said, explaining why he devoted his professional career to studying brain injuries in athletes.

In partnership with the the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, the Concussion Legacy Foundation has studied the brains of more than 200 athletes in an effort to better understand what happens after sustained, repeated blows to the head. The results, as you might expect, aren't exactly encouraging for football fans.

"A sport like football where you have people signing up somewhere between the age of 5 and 14," he said, "before they have this idea of informed consent, before they can really grasp these concepts of long-term brain degeneration—it's unique. It's difficult to transition from a 10-year-old who's playing with his buddies because he thinks it's cool on TV to a 22-year-old who is doing this for a living and can now think through the consequences."

Some pro athletes are already doing just that. Chris Borland, then of the San Francisco 49ers, made headlines in March 2015 when he announced his retirement from the NFL at the age of 24 after a single season, citing head trauma.

"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health," he said at the time. "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."

Brian Stann, who played football while at the US Naval Academy and who fought as a professional mixed martial artist for about seven years, including three years in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, similarly ended his career early in July 2013, saying there was "only so long that I can roll those dice and be successful." Stann, who at the age of 32 was in his prime fighting years when he retired from the UFC, managed to successfully transition to a career in sports color commentary.

"Brian Stann is a great example and there will be many more," Bryan Alvarez, co-founder and co-owner of mixed martial arts and pro wrestling news publication F4W Online, told Motherboard by phone. Alvarez, himself a former professional wrestler who also has a background in high-level gymnastics and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, noted that, despite the increased awareness of the dangers of brain injuries, the NFL is more popular today than it's ever been before, pulling in $13 billion in revenue last season alone (it's on track to generate $25 billion by 2027).

"Sports fans—they love their sports," Alvarez said. "It sounds callous, but I hear from people [on my call-in sports talk radio shows] who say that they don't care. They just want to be entertained. In their mind, if these guys are willing to go out there and do this, and it's their choice, and they want to go out there and get hit in the head—fine. They say, 'As a fan, I just want to enjoy it.'"

How long they'll be able to enjoy it remains to be seen. The number of children aged 6 to 14 participating in youth football declined from 3 million in 2010 to 2.2 million in 2015, according to amateur football governing body USA Football, limiting the supply of future high school, college, and professional players. And with the NFL still in the middle of settling a $1 billion concussion lawsuit agreement, it's unlikely that, at the very least, talk surrounding the risks of brain injury while playing football will go away anytime soon.

"There may be a lot of people out there saying, 'Well, I may not want my kid playing football, but damn it I'm watching the game this Sunday,'" said Alvarez. "That's just America."